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Patrick Springer, Published January 11 2014

Men at work: Oil Patch workforce shapes ND demographics

FARGO – North Dakota is steadily becoming a more male state.

Much of the gradual rise in the male population stems from a workforce that skews toward growth in occupations dominated by men, especially in the booming Oil Patch.

North Dakota, one of only 10 states with more males than females, ranks third among those states, with males comprising 50.8 percent of the population in 2012, census figures show.

Females outnumbered males in North Dakota at the outset of the 2000s, but the demographic tables started tilting toward males beginning in 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The trend was gradual and almost imperceptible in the beginning, but has widened modestly with time, census estimates show.

In 2002, women accounted for 50.04 percent of the population, but men comprised 50.03 percent the following year. By 2012, the most recent estimates available, the male segment had increased to 50.8 percent.

Males accounted for 54.7 percent of the workforce statewide in the last quarter of 2012, according to workforce indicators tracked by Job Service North Dakota.

Oil Patch industries

The shift is most pronounced in North Dakota’s Oil Patch, and shows up clearly in population migration patterns, according to the state’s top census watcher.

“The west definitely is male-dominated,” said Kevin Iverson, manager of the North Dakota Census Office. “The migration is economic opportunity. The industries where it’s happening are male dominated.”

The male bias in job growth is not surprising, given the physical demands of many of the jobs, he said.

Iverson added that males are more willing to locate in remote rural areas, often bringing wives and families later as more housing, services and amenities become available.

“Men are more willing to go in the middle of nowhere to find work,” he said.

Three job sectors strongly linked to the energy boom have mushroomed in recent years: oil and gas extraction, construction and transportation, which includes truck drivers.

All are overwhelmingly male in terms of job holders.

Consider these employment trends from 2009 to 2012 by sector:

- Mining, oil and gas extraction jobs grew from 6,955 to 24,376, an increase of 250 percent. Males hold 93 percent of those jobs.

- Construction jobs grew from 20,558 to 29,389, a rise of 43 percent in a field in which males hold 90 percent of the jobs.

- Transportation and warehousing jobs grew from 10,188 to 19,057, or 87 percent, in a category in which men hold 85 percent of the jobs.

During the same period, North Dakota’s total number of jobs grew 18 percent.

Physical jobs

Although men clearly dominate certain occupations, including roughnecks and drill hands, women also are doing some of the field work, said Cindy Sanford, customer service manager at Job Service’s center in Williston.

“There’s a lot of women at work in the field,” she said. Besides clerical jobs, women are common in safety and technical positions, and even such jobs as truck driving.

But jobs that require a lot of heavy lifting and physical strength continue to be male-dominated, Sanford said.

“The physical part in the oilfields are going to be men,” she said.

Many companies have fitness tests to screen applicants, with requirements for lifting, climbing stairs or other tasks.

Given the diversity of jobs in demand, and the spin-off employment associated with the energy boom, women have no trouble finding work, Sanford said.

“We’re seeing more and more women all the time,” she said. “It’s changed incredibly in two years.”

‘Balanced over time’

Nonetheless, males outnumber females in population growth from 2010 to 2012 in each of North Dakota’s eight planning regions.

For the Minot region, population growth included two males for every female during that period. For the Williston and Dickinson regions, the ratio was 1.6 males for every female.

In the Fargo region, by contrast, the ratio was nearly evenly balanced between the sexes, with 1.08 males for every female.

Once again, jobs help to explain the imbalance.

In the heart of the Bakken formation, McKenzie County, which includes Watford City, has a workforce that is 77 percent male, according to Census Bureau figures for the last quarter of 2012.

The job market was similarly skewed in Williams County, which was 72 percent male.

In Stark County, which includes Dickinson, 64 percent of were jobs were held by men.

In Cass County, by contrast, males held 53 percent of the jobs.

Over time, as the boom stabilizes and more jobs are created in fields that are not so prevalently male, Iverson predicts the gender imbalance will narrow.

“I’m guessing it’s going to get more balanced over time,” he said. “I think this is a transition. It’s almost like the Old West.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522